Luis Valdez has employed theatrical art to fight for social justice since the 1965-1970 Delano Grape Strike and Boycott. Fresh out of the San Jose State Masters program, where his first play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa was a hit, he, with the participation of many others, formed El Teatro Campesino to perform short plays to rally farm workers and encourage the strike. From that beginning, El Teatro Campesino has continued to boost the progress of social justice in the United States and in tours around the world, using the unique “Teatro style” to shine the light on inequality, prejudice, and discrimination, most notably with his signature play, Zoot Suit, which brought to light the wretched farce of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial of 1942, in which twenty-two young men were placed on trial for the murder of one Jose Diaz. More than fifty years later, Luis and the company are going strong with new works still flowing from his pen. His latest work, Valley of the Heart, is centered in the same era as Zoot Suit, but set in the Santa Clara Valley in Northern California, which was known as the “Valley of the Hearts Delight” for its lush groves of fruit trees that covered nearly the entire valley and was especially beautiful at blossom time.
On the very eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Valley of the Heart focuses on two families, the Yamaguchis, who own a prosperous farm, and the Montaños, who work as sharecroppers on the same property. Ichiro Yamaguchi (Randall Nakano) and his wife Hana (Joy Osmanski) are Japanese immigrants, but their children, Joe (Justin Chien) and Thelma (Melanie Arii Mah) are American-born citizens. The Montaños, father Cayetano (Daniel Valdez) and mother Paula (Rose Portillo), are Mexican immigrants with three children, Benjamin (Lakin Valdez), Tito (Moises Castro), and Maruca (Christy Sandoval). Thelma and Benjamin are sweet on each other, but, like Romeo and Juliet, her parents have other ideas and have arranged for her to marry Berkeley student, Calvin Sakamoto (Scott Keiji Takeda), a rich young man full of himself. A scant two months later, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, calling for the relocation and internment of all Japanese, citizens and immigrants alike, in far flung locations, separates Ben and Thelma, and the gestating child they have conceived.
In the patented Teatro style, the play is filled with music, dance, and comedy, broadly played with energy, passion and commitment, while touching the heart with the pathos of it all. Writer/director Luis Valdez keeps the pace brisk without sacrificing telling moments of exquisite sensitivity. One of the best things in the show is the appearance throughout of two black-clad kabuki stage hands (Mariela Arteaga and Michael Naydoe Pinedo), who move furniture, serve as sentries, and perform many, many other services with silent aplomb.
The Center Theatre Group production of Valley of the Heart is superb with an exquisite, flexible set by John Iacovelli (illuminated by Pablo Santiago’s lighting design) that features giant sliding shoji screens, that also serve perfectly for David Murakami’s ideal projection design. The sound design by Philip G. Allen is everything one could wish, and the costume design by Lupe Valdez supports character, action, and time period. The production is efficiently managed by David S. Franklin.
Valley of the Heart filled my heart with joy, sadness, and the affecting energy of the Teatro Style. Its all one could ask for. I left the theatre with a buoyant heart and great appreciation. See this show!
Valley of the Heart runs through December 9 at The Mark Taper Forum, located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles.